A few years ago, my opinion of baked beans changed forever when I tasted my friend Mory’s homemade baked beans with tamarind and smoked turkey. Up until then, I’d never liked them. I admit my experience was mostly limited to the canned variety—cloyingly sweet, with not nearly enough pork to suit me. But Mory’s were fantastic. They were not too sweet and were slightly sour from the tamarind, with lots of smoky shredded turkey for heft. They inspired me to develop my own life-altering baked bean recipes. I am happy to share them with you, as well as a few tricks I picked up along the way.
Combinations of sweet, tangy, and even bitter notes strike the right balance of flavor. If you keep the sweetness in check and the other flavors—smokiness, tang, and a touch of bitterness—well balanced, then your baked beans will be deliciously complex. The extra ingredients you add to your beans make all the difference. For tang and brightness, I turn to coffee, hard cider, Granny Smith apples, and sherry. For sweet touches, I stick with the traditional molasses, ketchup, maple syrup, and brown sugar.
Add plenty of meat—preferably some kind of cured pork—for hearty baked beans that are full of rich flavor. The smokiness of real Spanish chorizo, thick-cut bacon, or ham hocks adds a whole new dimension of flavor as well as a satisfying meatiness. And the salty pork cuts through the starchiness of the beans beautifully.
My method for these recipes is straightforward and relatively hands-off; you can go about your business while the beans bake. After soaking the dried beans to begin softening their skins, I brown the pork and sauté the aromatics in the pork drippings. Then I add spices, a cooking liquid, and the beans. Sweet ingredients and acids, such as coffee, tomatoes, and sherry, affect the way beans cook, so I don’t add them until the beans are almost fully cooked. Once those ingredients are incorporated, I bake the beans uncovered so the cooking liquid can begin to reduce and intensify.
Time is a bean’s best friend. Beans are like sponges, ready to soak up lots of good flavor if you give them enough time. After baking them, I let the beans sit overnight to absorb all the different flavors I’ve added and to let their natural starches begin to thicken the sauce. Then I reheat the beans on the stovetop and simmer them until the sauce thickens and coats the beans nicely. Finally, I like to add an optional—but highly recommended—dash of cider vinegar, sherry, or bourbon for a burst of bright flavor.
Tips for better baked beans
- Soak for soft skins. Soaking dried beans overnight yields consistently tender cooked beans. If you’re rushed, though, the quick-soak method outlined in these recipes works well, too.
- Be gentle. To keep the beans’ skins intact so they hold their shape throughout the baking process, resist the temptation to stir too often. And during the final cooking stage, don’t try to rush things by boiling or simmering too vigorously.
- Taste five beans when checking for doneness. Beans cook at different rates, even in the same pot, so it’s best to try a few at a time. Test frequently, as cooking times vary.
- Be patient. Baked beans act like sponges, so let the finished beans sit overnight to absorb as much flavor as possible.